Three years ago when my buddy found out I’d moved to Los Angeles, he suggested I was secretly cast as Dr. Strange.
There were hundreds of reasons that could never have been true, but the one I retorted with was, “The fans would have a meltdown if Dr. Strange was Asian.”
Maybe it’s unfortunate that that’s the first place my mind went. But the backlash when traditionally white male lead characters are portrayed in film as either not white or not male is no small thing. To an extent, it’s understandable — race and gender-bending characters with decades of history and thousands of fervent followers for the sake of diversity shouldn’t be done lightly.
The more I thought about it though, the more I realized Asian Dr. Strange made sense.
Master surgeon? Asian. Arrogance that stems from his skills? Pretty Asian. Locks himself away in a solitary sanctuary to fight magical and mysterious threats which may or may not be delusions brought on by loneliness? Sooo Asian. It also solved a few problematic elements since having a plucky Asian sidekick or a wise old Asian master are well-trodden tropes if a character’s white.
That didn’t happen of course. Not long after, the ‘Batch was cast and his supporting staff began to fall into place. There was some controversy over race-bending The Ancient One to be white, but since they also gender-bent the character I was okay with it. It solved the aforementioned problematic element and Tilda Swinton is awesome.
But that little exercise did get me thinking: what other Marvel heroes make sense as Asian-American? (wait for it….)
The Iron Fist
Around this time, the Netflix-Marvel deal had been made but none of their shows were out. Early material for Daredevil looked strong, Krysten Ritter had been cast as Jessica Jones, and the search for Luke Cage was on. But there was little — if any — information about their plans for the fourth neo-Defender, Iron Fist. There were rumors that they were having trouble deciding on a direction for the character. So I decided to play the game.
What if Danny Rand was Asian-American?
The effect of the race-bending was immediately palpable when it came to problematic elements. Cultural appropriation? Nope. Batman/Karate Kid copycat? Nah. White savior trope? Helllll no. Sure it feels kind of weird that the Asian hero is the one who’s good at martial arts, but it can’t be weirder than ol’ Matt Murdock beating the shit out of endless streams of faceless (yet distinctly Asian) martial artists.
But it had to be about more than just solving problems. It had to make sense for the character. It couldn’t take the history that made him a known quantity for granted. A comic book adaptation should, you know, adapt the comic book first. And then it could start pushing boundaries.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what that would look like and how it would work. I asked “What if?” thousands of times over. The answers came so naturally that I probably should have stopped wondering and started writing the damn thing.
So I did.
<< The Iron Fist – Pilot >>
Once you read that script, you’ll notice is Danny is a half-Chinese (his dad) and half-White (his mom) New York native. He also doesn’t leave New York until 18 (arriving in K’un L’un at 19). There are a few reasons for those choices.
Rereading as many Iron Fist books — old and new — as I could get my hands on, a persistent theme emerged: this guy doesn’t belong anywhere. To call him a fish-out-of-water assumes there’s a pond to go back to, and for him there isn’t. New York may have been where he was born, but it’s not where he was raised. K’un L’un made him a superhero, but no one needed saving. Rand Corp was his company, but he had no business in a board room.
From my perspective, that kind of isolation goes hand in hand with the Asian-American experience: Asians don’t think you’re a real Asian, Americans don’t think you’re a real American, and although you’re by definition a minority, no one seems to think you are. Even you.
Of course this kind of identity crisis isn’t limited to Asian-Americans. At one generation or another, every American has had to grapple with how much of their culture to hold onto and how much to assimilate (they say the first thing to go is the language and the last is the food). And for the mixed-race population it gets even more complex and alienating, so Danny is that. But he’s not the only one.
Colleen Wing is half-Chinese and half-Japanese. As someone who gets to answer a thousand “what are you” questions with a flat “Chinese”, I can only imagine how frustrating explaining both that would be. Her pointing out the differences between cultures to Danny acts as a PSA of sorts, a recurring bit of wish-fulfillment. And those shared growing pains would be a key to their friendship.
Some argue it’s important for Danny to be completely White to fulfill said fish-out-of-water aspect of the character in the foreign K’un L’un. I disagree, not from a personal standpoint, just from reading the comics. In his first appearances, at no point does he find himself ostracized in the city because of his race. And I mean his best friends there – Conal and Miranda – sound and look pretty White to me.
New York is really where he struggled to fit in and that was more on the basis of him being too much of an idealist for a cynical modern world. And race doesn’t really play a significant factor on that front. Case closed.
So why age him up 10 years? The driving reason is agency.
For the overwhelming majority of superheroes, a single tragic moment that thrusts them into superheroics. Kal-El is launched off his dying planet, Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, Matt Murdock has a fateful encounter with toxic chemicals (and Jessica Jones…. and Bruce Banner… and… you get the point). Danny doesn’t really have that moment.
Okay so losing your parents due to treachery/wildlife and being forced to seek refuge in a hidden dimension is a singular tragedy, but he did have to climb a friggin’ mountain to get there. And afterwards? You don’t train martial arts for a decade and defeat an ancient, immortal dragon by accident.
Yes, you could make the argument that at 9 years old he was basically carried up the mountain, and you’d be right. That’s a big part of that change. His choosing the road less travelled should be deliberate, not incidental. It makes his character arc stronger and the consequences more painful.
There’s a more practical reason of course: when showing 10 years of character growth on film, 9 to 19 is a lot harder than 19 to 29.
The Godfather Part II
Okay so this comparison might be a death sentence in terms of setting expectations high, but it’s the best example of how the series is structured.
Every superhero has an origin story. Danny has two.
As mentioned before, he trained for ten years with the best of the best just to earn his power, facing trial by literal fire. Then he had to figure out how to use that power back in New York where you can’t always punch away your problems. Those arcs lend themselves to parallel storylines with surprising ease.
It’s not a new concept. Daredevil and Jessica Jones both took time in their first seasons showing young versions of the heroes test themselves, and the original Iron Fist comic books even flip back and forth between the two worlds. However, those are much more flashbacky.
I want full-on Michael/Don Vito duality — only it would be Past Danny/Present Danny. With Wendell behind the curtain.
Like the Corleone’s, legacy is at the heart of the story. Wendell found K’un L’un long before Danny was a twinkle in his eye and it’s his name on Rand Corp. He’s the reason Heather (Danny’s mother) is dead and Harold Meachum (Wendell’s business partner) a sworn enemy. He casts a long shadow for Danny to either accept or fight his way out of.
No, daddy issues aren’t a new concept either. That’s where the kung fu comes in.
I watched a lot of kung fu movies growing up. Mostly Bruce and Jackie. At the time I just liked seeing someone who looked like me kick a bunch of ass, rewatching as an adult (kind of), I was surprised how many of them revolve around Bruce/Jackie kicking a bunch of ass to defend their family name.
Maybe they own a restaurant and some punk-asses vandalize the place for fun. Or they run a successful business and an evil corporation wants to buy them out. Or they have a dojo of honorable fighters and get challenged by one full of sneering assholes. It’s easy to root for Bruce/Jackie when the opposition is such a caricature of evil.
But what happens when your dad’s the bad guy? How do you defend a piece of shit?
Unlike Don Vito, Wendell doesn’t have the luxury of claiming he did it for his family. He’s selfish. He married rich. He failed upwards until he finally fell downwards and left his family for dead. He’s a real son of a bitch and the polar opposite of most kung fu father figures.
Recent comic book runs by Brubaker/Fraction and Kaare Andrews play that angle up and it makes for fascinating developments, but the idea that Harold Meachum might not be the real bad guy was always there. In the original run, Danny is fueled by revenge when he returns to New York, only to find Harold a self-tortured shell of what he’d remembered who dies before “justice” can be served. It was a shockingly modern take for its time and I wanted to preserve it.
While the specter of Wendell serves as a psychological foil for Danny, this is still a kung fu show and the hero also needs problems he can punch.
Someone of stature (whose name clearly escapes me) recently exclaimed that comic book supervillains are boring as shit because they’re carbon copies of the hero. While Daredevil and Jessica Jones both successfully avoided this particular issue by pitting punchers against masterminds (delivering two of Marvel’s greatest villains, no less), Danny is doomed to fail on that front with his arch-rival being Davos, the Steel Serpent.
Yes, there is story to support it: their skillsets are similar because they were trained in the same place by the same person with the same goal. They’re one-time allies forced apart by the competitive nature of their very existence. It’s not unlike any given iconic sports duo (Kobe and Shaq, Bonds and Kent, Kerrigan and Harding, etc.) but for the inevitable clash to have any weight you need to see the friendship develop first. That covers the story of Danny’s past. What about his present?
Back before Captain America 3 was officially (albeit heavily rumored as) Civil War, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige decided to pull a transparent prank and call it Serpent Society.
In the ensuing half hour, millions of people Googled “what the hell is the Serpent Society?” myself included.
When the joke was revealed, millions of people closed that window and forgot about them. I was not one of them.
As the name implies, the Serpent Society is a cabal of snake-themed villains. Being used as a punchline was not out of character for them, given their ratio of members to successful ventures. They’re so gimmicky that their ranks have included Cottonmouth, Diamondback, and Bushmaster, but none of them are the characters featured in Luke Cage. No, they have the other Cottonmouth, and girl Diamondback, and Bushmaster Jr. (he is the original’s son at least).
Luckily their abilities weren’t limited to poisonous bites and riling up your dog. While many employed some kind of non-lethal energy blasts, most had their own specialty going for them. Sidewinder was a techy escape artist, girl Diamondback threw knives (diamond-shaped, ‘natch), and Eel did more than just shock people with his electricity. [note: is an eel just an ocean snake?]
That variety is what makes them the perfect villains for Danny. He’s even faced at least one of them in the books.
You can only watch the hero beat up the same bad guys so many times before it all starts to blur together (sorry Daredevil season two). Kung fu films encounter the same issue, which is why the most entertaining fights are against those with different skillsets. It’s what makes the Game of Death sequences so much more memorable than Bruce’s other films. It’s why MMA is a thing.
Watching Danny punch through hordes of faceless, significantly worse kung fu fighters would be boring. Watching him put a decade’s worth of skills to the test in a progressively scarier gauntlet of supervillains? That sounds like fun.
It also sounds like Kill Bill (itself an homage to Game of Death, fyi). And like the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad has its Bill, the Serpent Society needs its Madame Gao.
We Have a History
Since the moment Daredevil’s first episode showed the character stamping the Steel Serpent logo onto packets of heroin, fans have assumed Madame Gao is the earthly alias of Crane Mother, a fairly recent comic book creation. While subsequent episodes did nothing to dissuade that theory, they didn’t confirm it either.
The intrigue definitely contributed to the character’s appeal, but as with all mysteries, it’s ultimate success depends on a satisfying resolution. Seemingly loose threads that converge by the end make a masterpiece (Breaking Bad). If they don’t, it’s a poorly planned mess (Lost). The writers confirmed afterwards they didn’t have concrete plans for the character in the Iron Fist series but hoped someone would pick up what they laid down and run with it. So I did.
Madame White Snake is a famous Chinese legend.
It’s a long and complex tale, but in short Madame White Snake is a magical snake spirit that takes human form and falls in love with this doofus who can’t stay out of trouble, so she spends most of her time saving him. Immortality pills and special resurrection herbs also play a big role along with other spirits, but she’s definitely the hero of the story.
Gao is not Madame White Snake. But she thinks she is. [Spoiler alert: Wendell is her doofus]
Her story is an amalgamation of Crane Mother, Madame White Snake, and a K’un L’un citizen named Shakirah (I know, I know).
She was a warrior and an immortal, training to challenge the dragon and become the next Iron Fist, when Wendell arrived. He was handsome, he was worldly, and he was a damn good fighter. It was an easy fit. But then she had to go and get pregnant. That’s okay though. If she couldn’t be the next Iron Fist, at least her true love would be.
And then he left. Back to his beloved New York.
She followed him, but not before leaving her immortality and her son [Spoiler 2: Davos] behind. Imagine her surprise when she finds her true love has already made a new life for himself with a new wife and a new son. Imagine her rage.
Now imagine that new son going to K’un L’un and claiming the Iron Fist for himself.
Of course she wants to ruin him, the living embodiment of Wendell’s rejection and her choices. The best villains don’t see themselves as villains, and Danny is simply her only shot at erasing her mistakes. At least that’s what she tells herself.
Traditional folktales play an interesting role in our lives. They were passed down through generations as little doses of morality or cautionary tales for shaping behavior in everyday life, but now we’ve got more sophisticated stories that play out over months, years, decades even.
We can get so attached that we align our likes and hates and big life decisions with that of a favorite fictional character. Which sounds absolutely ridiculous until you recognize that fiction came from a writer’s reality, or another writer’s reality, or another’s. The key is knowing when to detach yourself from the story and live your own reality. That idea is at the heart of the series; it’s what allows Danny to rise above his father’s mistakes and dooms Gao to hers. But it’s also the reason I’m sharing this.
Economically, culturally, and story-wise, I believe everything was aligned for it to make an impact and continue Netflix Marvel’s young history of pushing the envelope. But the time has past and it’s time to let go of it.
I put a lot of myself into this story. More than any of my past Marvel specs. I think it will be my last.
Good riddance is probably what you’re thinking if you skipped all that to bash me for race-bending. I’m biased against the real series by critics, self-interest, or my ethnicity. I don’t know about the challenges they faced or the pressure they were under (which is obviously true).
Hopefully when you’re done fuming you’ll go back and give it a good read, maybe consider some of the possibilities presented. If not, that’s okay too. As my friend said when I mentioned backlash for Asian Dr. Strange:
“Fuck those racists.”